How A Former Talent Agent Made Famous Amos So Famous. (Hint: Marvin Gaye Helped)
On the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Formosa Ave., in front of a Brazilian restaurant, you might notice a square metal sign. It doesn't honor a movie star or a musician. It doesn't even honor a person. It honors a cookie.
The historical marker in front of 7181 Sunset Blvd. designates the block as Famous Amos Square and commemorates the first store opened by talent-agent-turned-culinary-entrepreneur Wally Amos. This is where he introduced Los Angeles — and the rest of the world — to his sweetest star, "The Cookie." But this wasn't Wally Amos's greatest creation. That would be himself.
A SELF-MADE MAN
Wallace Amos, Jr. was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1936. After his parents divorced, his mother moved the family to Harlem, to live with her sister Della. She introduced young Wally to the simple delights of a warm, chocolate chip cookie. "I loved the cookies my Aunt Della made for me," Wally Amos wrote in his motivational book, The Power in You. "When she baked cookies and shared them, she was expressing her love for me and the rest of the family."
Amos never forgot those cookies. After dropping out of high school, he served in the Air Force and worked in the stockroom of Saks Fifth Avenue. Then he landed a job in the mailroom at the New York offices of talent agency William Morris. With his magnetic personality and promotional skill, Amos quickly moved up the ranks at the fabled agency, which represented superstars like Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones.
In 1962, Amos became the first African American agent, not just at William Morris but at any major talent firm. "He worked with all the Motown acts, with the Temptations and Supremes," his son, musician Shawn Amos says. "In Motown's heyday, they had something called the Motortown Revue, so he booked all that. He booked Solomon Burke. He signed Simon and Garfunkel and The Animals."
By 1967, Amos decided to strike out on his own. He signed South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela and moved to Los Angeles, convinced that he could create an entertainment empire.
"I would team up with others to build a self-contained, music-oriented entertainment company that handled recording, music publishing and personal talent management," Amos recalled in his book, The Cookie Never Crumbles. "I was confident Masekela's career would bankroll our dream. I poured money into start-up costs, investing heavily in what I was sure was a brilliant future. We made the move to the West Coast, and I fell in love with L.A. — the epicenter of the entertainment world. I was like a kid in a candy store!"
A SELF-MADE MYTH
Los Angeles wasn't the promised land Amos had hoped for. Masekela fired him, so Amos worked at his friend John Levy's entertainment firm. Around this time, in 1970, Amos, frustrated both personally and professionally, began to soothe his nerves by making cookies like his Aunt Della had done.
"When I began to bake them myself, it became my own creative project for the hour or so it took to mix the batter and pop 'em in the oven," Amos writes in The Power in You. "At the time, my career wasn't going too well. Some of my clients were quitting the business and others were not paying me commission... Baking cookies at home was my way of healing myself, loving myself and sharing my love with my friends."
Amos began to spread the love around, not only to friends but to business associates in the entertainment business.
"He would bring them with him to pitch meetings, the recording studio, to the soundstages, to executives' offices," his son Shawn explains. "It became his thing. Grab a bag and show up and have cookies. It was the '70s. Everyone was stoned and had the munchies so he was always warmly greeted. That became his shtick. He's the agent that has cookies on him."
Amos's name soon became synonymous with the crisp chocolate chip cookies he whipped up in his L.A. kitchen. "It's interesting," he recalled in 1987 during a speech at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, "because friends would see me and before even saying 'hello,' they would say, 'Hey man, where are my cookies?'"
By then, Amos had grown tired of the endless hustle of the entertainment industry and the riches that had never materialized. "I never had a superstar but I made a day-to-day living, that was about it," he told the New York Times in 1975. He began mixing up a new idea.
Around 1973, Amos decided to combine his salesmanship and baking abilities. He would throw his efforts into the cookies that had come to occupy so much of his time.
"When I finally entered the cookie business full time, I acknowledged to myself that I had taken a beating and that it was time for a change," Amos writes in The Power in You. "If I could love myself once a week or so in my home kitchen, I thought, why couldn't I love myself full time, share that love with as many people as possible, and at the same time earn a living doing what I loved most, with a product I loved the best? 'Famous Amos' became the vehicle to express my love in the outside world. "
THE BATTER THICKENS
Amos put together a packet for potential investors touting his product as though it was a Hollywood starlet.
"On the front cover there was a picture of The Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie," he writes in The Cookie Never Crumbles. "Attached to the inside was a little plastic bag with the cookies inside — one chocolate chip cookie with pecans, one butterscotch chip cookie with pecans, and one peanut butter chocolate chip cookie — stapled right there on the front page of the proposal. The message was, before you even turn the page, taste the cookies."
What was that taste? Famous Amos cookies were crisp and nutty, with a satisfying bite that most chocolate chip cookies lacked. They were rich and tasty but their simple flavor palate felt nostalgic. This was comfort food at its best.
Amos's promo packet and boundless enthusiasm were enough to convince entertainment industry friends, including singer Helen Reddy, her husband, producer Jeff Wald (another product of the William Morris mailroom) and record executive Artie Mogull to invest in the venture.
Together with his son, Shawn, who was then a young child, Amos began to search for an affordable storefront in Los Angeles. He found his "dream location" at the old House of Pies on the Sunset Strip and began to renovate it with an eye toward a March 1975 grand opening. However, he ran low on funds and returned to his entertainment industry Rolodex in search of backer.
"I walked into the little cubicle that was my office, and got out my phone book," Amos writes in The Cookie Never Crumbles. "I started looking through that directory for a name that just might have $10,000 next it. The name I stopped at was Marvin Gaye."
"I placed a call to Marvin, who was out, so I left a message. Then, while I was in the reception area of the president of Universal Pictures...my assistant, Ellen, called to let me know that Marvin Gaye had returned my call and wanted me to get back to him. I called him from that waiting room, got him on the line, and started right in describing what it was I was up to with The Cookie and Famous Amos, and my store and all. He stopped me in mid-pitch and said, "Wally, Wally...hey, wait a minute, man. If you're doin' it, that's Ok, I'll invest in it." And just like that, he was in for the $10,000 I needed! My shortfall set me back only a week, and thanks to Marvin, my plans were back on track."
OUT OF THE OVEN
Famous Amos opened on March 10, 1975, as a small, father-and-son operation
"He and I were together," Shawn says. "When the store opened, it was him in the back making cookies and me standing on a milk crate in the front, selling."
Before Mrs. Fields and the legion of cookie shops that now tempt us, Wally Amos was the proud owner of perhaps the first cookie-centric store in the United States.
To create buzz for his concept, he developed a backstory for "The Cookie," putting his years in show business to expert use.
"My dad is a master showman," Shawn says. "His real skill was as a hype man. He was a pretty brilliant marketer. From the beginning, he had a whole myth and lore around the store. The narrative he established was that he was a talent manager who spent his whole life identifying and discovering new talent and the next big act that he discovered, that he was going to dedicate his career to, was 'The Cookie.'"
"The Cookie" got the full star treatment.
"He had a headshot made of 'The Cookie,'" Shawn says. "In the lower right hand corner there was a William Morris logo, and in the other corner was an A&M Records logo that showed that the cookie had a record deal. When you walked into the cookie store, the door to the kitchen had a star on it, because that was the dressing room for 'The Cookie.' That was the whole schtick."
As the charismatic Amos told the story of "The Cookie" over and over, his concept received plenty of good PR. In 1975, he explained his strategy to the New York Times;
This is show business — I know it; I'm promoting a cooky[sic]," the 39-year-old entrepreneur said. To prove his point there are such items as "Famous Amos" bumper stickers; 'Famous Amos' T-shirts; 'Famous Amos' lapel buttons, and 'Famous Amos' posters, with- naturally- photos of Mr. Amos and a cooky.
The marketing campaign worked. A cookie from Famous Amos became a status symbol and its flagship store became a stop on the Hollywood scene, dazzling staid establishment figures like Stanley G. Robertson of the Los Angeles Sentinel. "I'll take a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies and a chance to ogle the beautiful young groovers at agent Wally Amos' Sunset Blvd. cookie emporium any day," he wrote cheekily in his L.A. Confidential column in 1975.
Famous Amos became a fixture in Hollywood, its proprietor staging celebrations much like the music revues he had helped organize in the 1960s.
"He had a big block party for the opening of the store and every year at Christmas he'd have a big block party," Shawn recalls. "One year, the theme of the block party was 'Cookies and Milk with Amos and Andy.' Andy Warhol came and they had cookies and milk and champagne. He and Andy would sign autographs. Muhammad Ali came by one year, and, you know, it was a whole thing."
Amos didn't only befriend the glitterati. His store also became a haven for Hollywood hopefuls in what was then a rough area around Sunset Blvd.
"I did an album of my own years ago called Thank You Shirl-ee May, a tribute to my mom, and Ray Parker, Jr. [ known for singing the theme song to 1984's Ghostbusters] played on the album," Shawn says. "When Ray came to the studio, he told me the year we opened the store, in '75, was when he first moved to L.A. He was living close by in Hollywood and he was starving. He'd come to the store all the time and my dad would give him free cookies."
While "The Cookie" was supposedly the star, Amos's kindness and goodwill helped make Famous Amos successful. "He just exuded light," his son says. "He was a fun, positive personality. There's no darkness, there's no subterfuge there. He just wanted people to have fun. It's as simple as that. And he really, really cared about people."
Over the next decade, Famous Amos expanded exponentially, growing into an international chain. Dozens of Famous Amos stores dotted America and different versions of "The Cookie" could be found in grocery stores around the world.
Amos, the former talent agent, became a star in his own right. A successful motivational speaker, he penned inspirational self-help books and received a 1986 award for entrepreneurial excellence from President Ronald Reagan. He also devoted much of his time and money to promoting literacy and hosted the PBS show Learn to Read.
"He had great instincts about story, and he had great instincts about how to make people feel good," Shawn says. "In the end he was a natural entertainer himself. I think that's what he probably ended up discovering about himself."
THE COOKIE CRUMBLES
Amos's role as a perpetual hype man had its downside. By the mid-'80s, Famous Amos was losing money and Amos slowly lost control of his creation.
"My responsibility, as I see it, is keeping our visibility level very high," he explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "The thing that got us in trouble is when I tried to actually run the business. That's not what I want to do. I'm a promoter."
In 1988, the Shansby Group bought the company for $3 million dollars, not a lot of dough for that era. Since then, Famous Amos has expanded its in-store profile, branching out to more grocery stores, gas stations and big box stores. Most of the dedicated Famous Amos shops were shuttered. The Shansby Group and Wally Amos battled in the early 1990s, entangled in a legal battle for the use of his face and image.
Today, Famous Amos is an international brand you can find in most grocery stores. In April 2019, its current owner, Kellogg Company, announced plans to sell Famous Amos, the Keebler brand and its fruit snacks business to Ferrero for $1.4 billion.
What of the man who started it all? Like any great star, the famous Wally Amos continued to reinvent himself, launching other baking ventures including Uncle Noname Gourmet Muffins (now Uncle Wally's Muffin Company) and The Cookie Kahuna. None of them have had the mass appeal or success of Famous Amos.
Now living in South Carolina, 83-year-old Wally Amos has plans for one last venture, Aunt Della's Cookies. He has a thing for baked goods, specifically, cookies. "He likes to make them and eat them," Shawn Amos laughs. "Whenever I see him, I've got a bag waiting for me."